It’s a really good thing that some of the very best academic institutions in the world are moving to influence business and government. Exciting academic research is happening and city planners need to use it in practice rather than placing it into 20-year vision plans.
Take the anecdotal of my voyage to attend and speak at this week’s 2015 Disrupting Mobility Summit: I Uber-ed from home for the first-mile to the D.C. Metro, which took me right to National Airport. A breeze.
On the other end, in Boston, I took a free airport shuttle to the T subway up to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. The T got me woefully not-that-close to my hotel. I walked with two bags through a light rain for what was supposed to be a 20-minute walk. Because my phone died before I looked at where I was actually going, my roundabout walk turned into about 45 minutes (the Citymapper app was doing a tremendous job of getting me to where I was until the point when my phone died … don’t ask).
Granted, I stopped for a lunch in Chinatown in downtown Boston, but my commute should not have taken from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. to get from my home in D.C. to my hotel in Boston. Clearly the Uber part of my trip was more reliable and enjoyable than the transit and walking elements, which, it should be noted, were both actually very enjoyable but slow-going.
With the likes of the University of California at Berkeley, MIT, and the London School of Economics so heavily researching the on-demand economy, travel of the non-driving variety – for ride-hailing and transit options like buses, trains, and bikesharing – will no doubt make our transportation networks more efficient and less frustrating in the near future.
Just a sampling of the exciting academic research being done to “disrupt mobility” includes:
- Bikeshare is gaining wildly in terms of both sheer number of systems across the U.S. and the basic idea that people are beginning to envision more utilitarian uses of bicycling. But there’s a huge opportunity to get less wealthy people to use bikeshare; they currently tend to be some of the most frequent users of bicycles, but not bikeshare. Governments don’t have the resources for a lot of things, but this is one they could actually embrace. Connecting poorer communities by bikeshare and adding better bike infrastructure are the kinds of affordable projects that make sense for the cash-strapped public sector. Groups like UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center have already illuminated the problem, now it’s up to governments (hopefully with collaboration from the private sector) to figure out solutions.
- Kent Larson of MIT’s City Science Initiative was quoted by NPR that he’s seen “estimates that in New York City up to 40 percent of the energy consumed by automobiles is by people circling the block looking for a parking space.” So engineers at MIT have gone through a series of prototypes of the perfect pod cars that could essentially be like bikeshare, in which people could pick up one-person pod cars all over the place to rent for one-way trips. Since so many more people are willing to drive than bike, it certainly seems like the prototype that inspires people will be the one to catch on.
- The London School of Economics Cities Research Center has created fingerprints of cities in order to better understand how to integrate transportation options into the way places have been planned. And it has also researched how sprawl costs the U.S. more than $1 trillion annually. That number alone would seem to cause at least some planners and city officials to take notice that we’ve got to put great academic ideas and research into real practice now, and not within some 20-year-plan that will be obsolete in five years.
What are some of the other best ideas to help reshape places around people rather than cars that have been backed up by convincing university research?